Leafs start in high gear

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

It took only the first shift of the first scrimmage on the first day of Maple Leafs training camp for Luke Schenn to realize there was a new vibe in town.

"The puck went back to me and two guys were on me right away," the second-year defenceman said yesterday after a rather spirited official start to the pre-season at the new MasterCard Centre in Etobicoke. "I came back to the bench right away and said: 'The guys are definitely going all out.' "

The message hammered home all summer by general manager Brian Burke apparently got through loud and clear. Before the 62 players in camp hit the ice, any sniff of entitlement was checked at the door of the team's spiffy new practice home.

Coach Ron Wilson has mapped out a training camp schedule that all but guarantees it. The team is divided into three groups -- Team Armstrong, Team Kennedy and Team Sittler -- and there will be a scrimmage between two of the squads for the first three days of camp.

That's a marked departure from a year ago when the emphasis was on drills and indoctrinating a new system. But players will tell you, it is one thing to skate hard in a drill, quite another to let it all fly in a scrimmage situation.

So, with the depth created by Burke in the off-season, the legitimate battle for roster spots has begun.

"The intensity is definitely there and it should be," said forward John Mitchell, who will be expected to take another big jump forward in what would be his second season with the team. "Management has said the jobs are open. The younger kids are going to come in here and work hard and older veteran guys want to stay in the NHL.

"The boys are definitely here to work hard. Guys are going to be hitting so you better keep your head up."

While players adhered to the warning not to drop the gloves against their teammates, there was no lack of thumping and finished checks. Whether in blue or white yesterday, all seemed ready to impress Burke, who has made it clear he demands team toughness.

The next major upgrade on display in the early strides of camp was speed, an immediate benefit from the off-season fitness initiatives dictated by the coaching staff. Wilson said that early results from Saturday's testing showed that most players have improved between 10% and 15% from the end of last season.

"Players will always complain about that effort, but it makes my job easier," Wilson said. "They practise better, they are fitter and they feel better about themselves.

BETWEEN THE EARS

"Half of the game is played between your ears anyway and if you feel confident because of your fitness, the rest of the game will fall into place."

The most interesting of the many battles may be on defence, a point Wilson emphasized yesterday. Right now, he likes the pairings of Mike Komisarek and Tomas Kaberle and Schenn with Francois Beauchemin. While not carved in stone, that's an impressive front four.

"The rest of the spots are wide open," Wilson said. "There will be a big battle for five, six, seven and eight and I'll be mixing it up (throughout training camp.)"

The evaluation for all spots will be both thorough and swift, what with the scrimmages and nine pre-season games, beginning with Wednesday's contest against the Boston Bruins.

"It was the best first day of camp I've seen in my short tenure in the league," defenceman Ian White said. "It seemed like everyone was flying out there."

As for Burke, like the Pope watching over the Vatican, he took in the scrimmage from his perch high above the practice rink. And on Day 1, at least, there was no need for another sermon.

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos